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2 Parties, 2 Paths, 1 Concern


WASHINGTON — One senator is a Democrat, the other a Republican. One is from the West Coast, the other from the East. Both are agonizing over war with Iraq.

As the Senate nears its vote on a resolution that would authorize President Bush to attack Iraq, Dianne Feinstein of California and Susan Collins of Maine are officially undeclared. Senate handicappers figure that Collins, a Republican, will ultimately support the resolution while Democrat Feinstein, depending on the measure's wording, may not.

But it is one of the peculiarities of the debate on Iraq that these two senators, who may find themselves on opposite sides of the final tally, share similar concerns--a preference for multilateral action, an unease about preemptive strikes, a hope for diplomacy.

Constituent feedback to both offices is running heavily in the same direction--in Feinstein's office, the latest phone call tally is 597 in favor of a unilateral attack, 24,169 against. E-mails and faxes to Collins' office are far fewer in number but in about the same proportion: 40-1 against war.

But no constituent has yet provided an answer to the question that haunts the two senators most: How imminent is the threat posed by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons of mass destruction?

And so, Feinstein is reading everything she can get her hands on--her latest bedside book is Sandra MacKey's "The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein." Collins, meanwhile, is taking calls at home from Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Both senators talk of a wrenching decision, with war in the balance.

"The decision on whether or not to authorize military force, knowing that it would be putting young men and women in harm's way, is the most difficult decision I've had to make as a senator," said the 49-year-old Collins, a onetime aide to former Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine). "That's why I'm taking my time with it."

Feinstein, the 69-year-old former mayor of San Francisco, and a member of the powerful Intelligence Committee, has weighed the decision with intellectual intensity.

To determine how soon Hussein could have a nuclear weapon, Feinstein flew to Austria in August to talk with experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency. She learned that if Hussein were able to obtain enriched uranium, his nation could acquire nuclear capability within a year. If Iraq makes its own uranium, estimates are that it could take longer, from five to seven years.

Feinstein has interviewed a retiring general of the Israeli armed forces about how difficult it could be for U.S. troops to fight their way into Baghdad. She has looked at all the classified briefings available. And she has tried to weigh the likelihood that Hussein would use biological and chemical weapons.

She concluded that Hussein's decision to put Iraq's presidential sites off limits to U.N. inspections suggests that he is hiding such weapons at his compounds. "It indicates that he's going to prevaricate again," she said. "It strengthens the case [to move against him] dramatically."

For both senators, assessing Hussein is much more difficult than measuring his arsenal. "I'm convinced on [Iraq's weapon] capability, but I don't know Saddam's intent," Collins said. "I don't know whether he can be contained by other processes short of military force, but I think we ought to try that first."

Said Feinstein: "This is a man who has no scruples about killing people, whether his own family or members of the military or former leaders or the Kurds."

Though both senators prefer to exhaust the diplomatic track first, they come to that view from different perspectives.

Feinstein worries about the war's potential course, predicting a "pitched battle in Baghdad." She also thinks about war's aftermath: whether the United States will "stay the course," whether Iraq can become a democracy, whether an attack will only breed more, not fewer, young terrorists eager to die in a holy war against America. "War should be the last alternative," she said.

Collins, called to the White House for a CIA briefing on Tuesday, seems swayed by the Bush administration that the best way to push the United Nations Security Council toward muscular, meaningful weapons inspections in Iraq is for Congress to give the president authority for war.

"The secretary of State, for whom I have enormous respect, is adamant in arguing that unless Congress passes the authorization for use of force, the Security Council will find a way to sidestep the issue," she said as she walked up the marble steps toward her office in the Russell Senate Office Building. "It is the threat of unilateral action by the United States that will prompt the Security Council to act. I think that's a very valid argument."

Both had hoped to support an alternative resolution, now unlikely to be offered, that focused more on disarmament and less on regime change. And both are uneasy about the doctrine of striking enemies before they have attacked.

"There is a palpable dislike for America," Feinstein said of her summer trip to Austria and France. "It is really tragic that all of the positive feelings generated toward the United States following 9/11 have been effectively dissipated. I think we can get past it, but it's got to be done with our allies, not by going out and for the first time in history invading another sovereign country."

So the debate comes full circle, back to the issue of how imminent a threat Iraq poses to the U.S.

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